MY FIRST BAR was an old peach crate on the floor next to the fridge. It held a stack of cheap liquor, plastic cups and a bottle opener; hoist it onto a table, instant party.
My second bar was made by an old friend out of recycled window shutters and plywood. It weighed about 3,000 pounds and held slightly more bottles than the peach crate.
The old crate is in the attic now, and the shutters fell apart a couple years ago. So, the bottles piled up in kitchen cabinets. The corkscrew was somewhere beneath the spatulas. I had barstools, but no place to lean my elbows.
It was an embarrassment. My drinking pals laughed, and then left with their beer. Neighbors were talking. Joe Sixpack, without a bar?
A bar of my own, I explained to the missus, was not just an idle diversion. My manhood was at stake. And besides, I needed a place to hang my neon Ortlieb’s sign.
Pleeeeeeze . . .
She gave me a Marge Simpson groan, and I headed to the basement. That was two years ago.
I tell myself it’s taken so long because I wanted it to be perfect. A man’s bar, I think we can all agree, is the very essence of his being. It is the place where he feels most comfortable, where he can be moody or happy or just tie one on without excuse.
It is sanctuary, yes, but it’s also an expression of character. Like the beer I drink, my bar would be hand-crafted, bold and rich with flavor. It would be as warm as a mouthful of whiskey tickling the throat. Visitors would be awed by its subtle undertones. When they carry me out, I want the paramedics to say, “Yo, nice bar.”
But even a bar with such lofty metaphysical qualities needs walls. That was first.
And a ceiling – the bare-rafter look wasn’t going to work.
And a floor, naturally. I didn’t want to wake up with dirt on my face.
And a sink. I could live without drinking water, but eventually you have to wash out the glasses.
And some lights. A big-screen TV. A couch. A rug. An air filtration system for the cigar smoke, and what the hell, let’s just wire up a kick-butt home-theater while we’re at it.
I suppose I could’ve hired union labor to do the work. But if this was going to be my bar, I wanted to do it myself. Plumbing, electric, drywall, flooring, furniture – I tackled it all with my own hands, and my trusty Dewalt cordless drill.
When things got tough (like the 15-minute soldering job that turned into a six-hour blasphemy of every known world religion), I headed over to Standard Tap for a Victory Golden Monkey and a pep talk from owner William Reed.
In a previous life, the bar at 2nd and Poplar was a bland, harshly lit joint run by some dudes from Jersey.
Reed, who lives upstairs with his family, and partner Paul Kimport sweated for four years, sawing wood, installing beautifully trimmed cherry cabinets, re-igniting old gas lamps, running tap lines to the 2nd floor.
They transformed it into one of the best-looking bars in Philly, and when they were done, they could proudly say they did it themselves.
Pride is what drives do-it-yourselfers. That, and a certain measure of cheapness.
It’s an epiphany I had one afternoon last week while putting the finishing touches on the bar. It’s got a history, you see.
Fifteen years ago, when I started at the Daily News, I worked a graveyard shift on the copy desk, proof-reading articles by some of my old Philly newspaper heroes. Chuck Stone, Pete Dexter, Jack McKinney, Nels Nelson, Dave Racher, Frank Dougherty – without being too poetic, their words helped shaped my world.
At the end of the shift, the copy desk headed down to the fourth floor, to the composing room, where sharp-tongued guys with razor blades sliced up sheets of copy laid out on big, black drafting tables. Into the early hours, we made the writers’ words fit into the People Paper’s columns.
Stone, Dexter, the rest of ’em – they’re gone now, and so are most of the composers. The whole paper is put together on damn computers. A few months ago, they hauled the old, black tabletops to the Dumpster.
When no one was looking, I grabbed two of them. It took me hours to clean off the layers of wax and grime. Then I ripped them to fit the top of my bar. Probably saved myself 50 bucks.
But the money didn’t matter; I’ll blow that on a couple cases next week. Something else made it worth the effort to take that used countertop and make it into my own bar. It shines like a pair of Tom McAn’s. Not too brightly, but reflective enough so that after a sip or two, you can see 10 thousand tiny razor scratches, the mark of so many words cut and shaped into this newspaper. The other day, I shook off the sawdust and cracked open the first brew at my new bar. I drained the bottle in two gulps and set it down atop the counter.
It left a perfectly round ring. Just perfect.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Stoudt’s Holiday Reserve.